The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 4

Feature
Fiddlin’ Bill and the Taylors of Tennessee
By Bob Carlin
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Hensley’s early life was filled with fiddle music. The area of Happy Valley, originally known as Sycamore Shoals, had been settled in 1768. Its idyllic label was applied by the Hensley’s neighbor, Nathaniel Greene Taylor (1819-1887), who drew the nickname from Samuel Johnson’s book Rasselas. Nathaniel’s grandfather and namesake had come to the Watauga River Valley in 1788, later serving with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.  The original Taylor’s descendants became prominent in local and state politics, aided by their familial association with the Carters for whom East Tennessee’s Carter County was named. General Nathaniel Taylor’s son James married Mary Carter, for whose mother the county seat of Elizabethton was named. James and Mary’s son, the Helton’s neighbor, Nathaniel Greene, attended Princeton University, obtaining training in law and theology.

After returning to East Tennessee, Nathaniel married, practiced law, farmed, and served the citizens of Tennessee in Congress and the Lord as a Methodist minister. Two of Minister Taylor’s sons followed him into politics and used music in their campaigns. Alfred A. “Alf” Taylor (1848-1932) and his younger brother Robert Love “Bob” Taylor (1850-1912) both fiddled, as did their brother Jim. All were musical influences on the young Bill Hensley.

Perhaps the Taylors’ biggest fame came during their political campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th century. Bob and Alf’s runs for office were marked by eloquent public speeches, fierce clashes with their competitors (even with each other!), and exhibitions of fiddling.  Bob Taylor had become interested in fiddle music as early as 1860, when, at the age of ten, he witnessed two locals playing at a log schoolhouse. Bob, like many fiddlers of his time and region, then learned to play “by ear,” catching the tunes from other musicians.  And like others rural players, the Taylors helped provide the entertainment at community functions. Bob and Alf’s brother Jim would write that “All three of us used to play at school ‘exhibitions’ and other social entertainments, and Bob always played ‘second fiddle,’ or alto, at which he was an expert, always playing the fiddle with his left hand, because he was left-handed, without changing the fiddle strings.”  Bob and Alf Taylor must have maintained their music even during their sojourns to New Jersey and Washington, DC, as they continued to fiddle area tunes for the rest of their lives.

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